I don’t even know why I requested this book on Netgalley, maybe because I saw the title a lot when it received the Man Booked International Prize and it felt familiar, like something I should read. Irrespective of the reason, I did request it and during my vacation in Portugal in the effort to try to at some point catch up with my Netgalley backlog I decided to read it.
I must say it was a bit odd to read it on the beach in Estoril, because he book describes an evening stand-up comedy performance, so I was on the beach sitting in the sun and my brain was in the dark bar, with a comedian unraveling on stage. I wonder how this dissonance impacted my reception of the book. I cannot say I liked the book, because it is not a book to like, but it certainly made an impression, so much that I recommended it to my Bigger Half and within 3 days he’s already half way through the book (and he’s not a fast reader).
As I mentioned the book takes us to an evening of stand-up comedy. Our narrator is a friend of the comedian from the youth, he has been invited to the performance, but has no idea why, especially that he despises stand-up. The book follows the performance, but also our narrator’s reaction to it and the memories it brings up, Grossman creates a sort of spiraling narrative. We start with regular jokes and banter with the audience, though our performer seems to be a bit on the edge, he is often very harsh, but manages to defuse the tensions when it gets too much and get the audience laughing again. We then get to the first round of memories, that tells us how our narrator got here and how he knows the comedian. Then again we get some jokes, but then comes the first shocking and violent episode and time for another trip down the memory lane, this pattern repeats itself, but it gets more and more out of control with every iteration. We quickly see the comedian is basically going through a mental breakdown on stage, the narrator tries to find out why that is, but at the same time closely monitors the audience reactions. I won’t go into more details of the plot no to spoil it for you.
I find it fascinating how Grossman manages to manipulate the readers mood, we really feel like we’re in the bar, emotions flying high, often wanting to leave. The book is really brutal in the emotional sense, but always fascinating. Grossman seems to be watching very closely with us how the comedian’s personality falls apart bit by bit, how the narrator gets pulled into this emotional battle, but also how the public reacts, how often people turn to beasts when they feel freed from their inhibitions. I found this book very moving, not as much because of the plot or the comedian’s story, but more because of the setting and how much this one evening is telling us about different aspects of human nature, most of them not pretty. And all of this with some really good jokes thrown into the mix, the book definitely had me laughing out loud at times. An emotional roller-coaster that still has me thinking two weeks after I finished this book.
Not a pleasant or nice read but a very good book indeed, it’s not a book to like, but a book to think through and digest.
I received this book for free from the publisher, Random House UK, in exchange for an honest review